Unfortunately, very few of the early rugs survived. Those that did are now housed in major museums or famous private collections. Almost all antique rugs available in the market today date back to the last quarter of the 19th century or later when rugs became popular in the West and the rug industry experienced a commercial rebirth across the region. This includes the rugs from long-established centers such as Persian Kerman, Kashan, Turkish Oushak, and Chinese Ningxia, or famous tribes, as well as the rugs from new ventures at that time, such as Persian Serapi, Heriz, and Sultanabad, or Chinese art deco rugs. While they clearly influenced each other throughout the ages, each region and tribe developed its own weaving tradition and vocabulary of motifs and colors. The basic forms and patterns were relatively unchanged since before the 18th century and remained fairly limited, a testimony to the difficulty of creating designs that are suitable for rugs on one hand, and the constraints of this medium on the other.
Rug weaving has been practiced for many centuries in Persia and the East, although we do not know exactly where, when, and how it developed. The oldest carpet known, the so-called Pazyryk carpet, is dated back to 500 B.C. and is quite sophisticated in design and technique. It was discovered in the tomb of a Scythian prince in Siberia, a considerable distance from its likely place of origin, suggesting that rugs were already a known commodity at that time. Tools suspected to have been used for carpet weaving have been dated as far back as the 2nd and 3rd millenium B.C.
Historical records show that rug weaving was prevalent throughout the middle ages, notably in Sassanid Persia (3rd -7th century), under Islamic influence during the Seljuks reign (11th-13th century), the Mamluk dynasty in Egypt and Syria up until the turn of the 16th century, the Ottoman empire from the 14th century, the Mughal dynasty in india in the 15th century, and as far west as Spain.
Rugs were offered as gifts and tribute on diplomatic missions, and were acquired through trade or plunder. Stories tell of rulers who upon seeing these products brought in master weavers from afar to establish workshops on their territory. By the seventeenth century, rugs were produced in different corners of Anatolia, Persia, China, Caucasus, and India, and by a multitude of nomadic tribes.
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Early rugs were woven by households in villages or tribes for their personal use or by specialized workshops that catered to royal courts and the aristocracy. The former were generally woven on rudimentary looms and were smaller in size, more primitive in design, and somewhat looser in structure, although some can be very fine. For many collectors, these "village" and "tribal" rugs are more genuine as they are instilled with uncontrived personal expression and cultural tradition. As such they can be masterpieces in their own right. As demand expanded at the end of the nineteenth century, these rugs were also produced for commerce on a large scale and in a variety of forms, although rarely in large sizes.
In contrast, antique rugs produced in workshops, or "city" rugs, were woven on advanced looms usually with the help of a blueprint elaborated by expert designers. These rugs could be of any dimensions, and they usually were more formal without kinks or asymmetries, and employed a fine, tightly packed weave and more uniform dyes.